Anti-US attacks in Libya, Egypt, Yemen: Put security first

Violent attacks on US diplomatic posts in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere this week underscore a lesson taught repeatedly over the past decade – namely, that security is necessary to launch fledgling democracies emerging from autocratic states.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
A protester runs from tear gas released by riot police during clashes along a road which leads to the US embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Sept. 13. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: 'From Sierra Leone in Africa to Iraq, examples show how important law and order are to a country’s political, economic, and social progress.'

Violent attacks on US diplomatic posts in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere this week underscore a lesson taught repeatedly over the past decade – namely, that security is necessary to launch fledgling democracies emerging from autocratic states.

From Sierra Leone in Africa to Iraq, examples show how important law and order are to a country’s political, economic, and social progress. Security must be a prerequisite to development, at least in the immediate term, even if development is essential to stability in the long term.

As protests spread against an anti-Muslim film, reportedly made in California, what options do these countries’ leaders and their international counterparts have to establish stability? The stakes are high in a region at its most pivotal and delicate moment in nearly a century – and so are the challenges.

Libya and Egypt, for instance, have newly elected governments with limited influence and control over their military and police forces. Both face factionalized and fragmented societies emerging from decades of injustice and state violence. Both must forge new relationships with the West amid a constant threat of Islamic extremism.

Libya achieved democracy through civil war, Egypt through popular protest. Libya is awash in weaponry, Egypt is historically a seedbed of violent Islamism.

In Libya, there are strong indications that jihadists possibly linked to al Qaeda and possessing advanced weaponry were responsible for the deaths of US Amb. Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues. It is unclear whether extremists planned the attack in advance or simply took advantage of a mob scene. The transitional government, made up of pro-Western moderates, immediately apologized to the United States for the incident.

In Egypt, protesters who scaled the walls of the embassy in Cairo burned the American flag and hoisted a black Islamist banner in its place. As a leader of the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood, President Mohamed Morsi faces the delicate task of balancing the ideological leanings of his base with the imperatives of serving all Egyptians. He condemned the attacks as “unlawful acts,” but only after his government encouraged protests to continue Friday at the mosques.

In both countries, the security forces tasked with protecting foreign diplomats not only failed in their duties, but may have been complicit in the violence.

The attacks against the US embassy in Cairo and consulate in Benghazi were not isolated violent events in either country. A British diplomat narrowly escaped a rocket attack while traveling in Benghazi in June. Gun battles erupt regularly across factional lines across Libya. Salafist Muslim extremists have destroyed archeologically important Sufi religious sites in Libya, and disrupted arts and cultural events in Tunisia, another nascent democracy. Along the Egypt-Israel border in the Sinai, Islamist gunmen killed 15 Egyptian police at a border post last month.

Writing about counterinsurgency, Gen. David Richards, head of the British armed forces, notes that “political, social and economic factors may well be far more important in the longer term. However, without security, they will be difficult to improve.”

No single approach – at either the national or international level – to building security can fit all cases of these emerging Arab democracies.  But certain observations are broadly cautionary and applicable.

First, government credibility and influence depends on the allegiance of well-trained security forces extended across each country’s territorial space. This remains an ongoing challenge in all of the countries undergoing democratic reform in the Middle East. It also presents the most obvious role for international support – akin to the work of the US Africa Command in helping African governments professionalize their militaries under civilian control.

Second, the rule of law cannot be selectively applied. The moderate and moderately Islamist governments emerging in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt have shown tentativeness in dealing with Salafist and other extremist groups. But until these governments demonstrate a commitment to protecting the rights of all their citizens and the conviction to hold all to the same code of conduct, they will lack the legitimacy necessary to maintain stability and popular support behind difficult reforms.

Third, in the Middle East perhaps more than elsewhere, events in one place cast long shadows elsewhere. The flood of arms left in Libya following the civil war to oust Col. Muammar Qaddafi provides caution in the debate about arming the rebels in Syria. At the same time, however, failing to intervene to stop the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent Syrians may erode the credibility of the US and other players as much as failing to advance the Israel-Palestinian peace process – a key grievance among Muslims worldwide and Islamist antipathy toward the West in particular.

Finally, progress on building safe, law-abiding societies hinges on personal, long-term relationships and partnerships with countries offering a helping hand. Tributes from Libyans who knew Ambassador Stevens well say he was a talented diplomat who earned trust through his steadfast commitment to the rebellion from the outset.

As the Arab Spring unfolds, exhilaration will jockey with heartache. There will be triumphs and setbacks. Development and progress will depend on the integrity of local and national politicians and the consistency of international engagement. Together, they can build  the security needed to advance individual and collective aspirations across the region.

Kurt Shillinger is a former political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He also covered sub-Saharan Africa for The Boston Globe.

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